PENDLETON — The atmosphere in the St. Anthony Hospital conference room on Monday, Dec. 28, was upbeat. Ten health care workers who waited there to receive the hospital’s first coronavirus vaccinations could barely contain their elation.
“This is huge,” said Dr. John McBee. “This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”
Each person answered screening questions and signed a consent form.
McBee went forward first, sat down in the hot seat and rolled up his left sleeve. Tracy Wart, infection prevention nurse at St. Anthony, cleaned the surgeon’s arm with alcohol and prepared the syringe.
“Ready?” Wart asked.
McBee nodded and the nurse slowly injected the vaccine into the surgeon’s deltoid muscle.
“The first step to normalcy,” he said after Wart withdrew the needle.
This initial session was a test drive of sorts using the contents of one 10-dose vial of the Moderna vaccine as a precursor to a full-scale vaccination of employees. St. Anthony President Harry Geller watched happily as he leaned against a wall.
“This is the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
Hospital employees aren’t required to get vaccinated, but Geller hopes most will do so.
“It’s not mandatory,” he said. “(However), the care community, we’ve got to reach at least two-thirds vaccinated to get herd immunity. I think that’ll happen over time as it rolls out. More and more people are getting comfortable with the idea of taking it.”
The caveat, he said, is a new coronavirus mutation sweeping through England that is more transmissible and harder to control. The variant might require an even higher percentage to reach herd immunity, maybe up to 90%. That might be a harder sell.
The health care workers in the conference room, however, were all in. Dr. Bill Powell, medical director in the hospital’s emergency department, gave a hang loose sign hand sign as he got his injection. Powell said the vaccination means he won’t worry quite as much about bringing COVID-19 home to his family.
“I have a son with Down syndrome and heart disease,” he said. “I’ve been trying hard not to expose him. Now there is less risk of taking it home.”
Afterward, vaccine recipients received stickers that read, “I got my COVID vaccine.” Each person was required to remain in the room for 15 minutes after the injection.
“We watch for shortness of breath, dizziness, anything out of the ordinary,” Wart said. “We make sure they’re not in anaphylactic shock.”
While allergic reactions are rare, a Boston physician with a shellfish allergy used his own Epipen after experiencing an allergic reaction to the Moderna vaccine, but recovered quickly.
Vaccine recipients will return for a second vaccination in 28 days. That differs from the Pfizer vaccine, which requirers two doses three weeks apart.
The need to monitor vaccine recipients makes vaccinating the community at large a bit more complicated, said Nicol Byram, a registered nurse who gave half the shots on Dec. 28. Byram, who works both for the hospital and the Umatilla County Health Department, said a mass drive-thru vaccination event for the community at large would require a large parking lot, such as the one at the Pendleton Convention Center.
“We are working out the details,” she said. “We’ve been preparing for some time.”
Unlike past drive-thru flu vaccine clinics, Geller said, “it’ll be a slower process to get everyone vaccinated (for coronavirus). People would get jabbed and pull into a parking spot and wait. It’s doable.”
Still needed are specific instructions from the Oregon Health Authority and an ample supply of the vaccine.
Geller said additional hospital employees will receive the vaccine this week and beyond, starting with those working in such departments as the emergency room and the cardiac care unit.
Across Umatilla County, at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston, the Moderna vaccine was also administered to health care workers starting at 7 a.m. on Dec. 28.
Brian Patrick, vice president of nursing for Good Shepherd, told the East Oregonian a few hours later that the morning’s rollout had gone well. He said staff were excited to receive the vaccine and begin to administer it to others.
“This is the part of the disaster response we’ve been waiting for,” he said.
Patrick said in Good Shepherd’s initial polling of staff, before the vaccine had become available to them, some had expressed some hesitancy about whether they wanted to be part of the first phase of the rollout, but now he is seeing many of those hesitant people ask to be added to the list as their confidence in it grows. He personally expressed confidence in the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.
“There is really good science behind it,” he said.
Enough vaccines are coming in for Good Shepherd to begin expanding the vaccine beyond staff, and Patrick said the hospital is following Oregon Health Authority guidelines as it works to move down the list of vaccine eligibility to first responders, nursing homes, health clinics outside Good Shepherd Health Care System and others. He said they will be working together with Umatilla County Public Health and other community partners to make sure the vaccine is distributed as efficiently and quickly as possible.
“We want to make sure we use our resources the best we can,” he said.
Right now, those notified it is their turn to receive a vaccine will visit the hospital to get immunized, but Patrick said as the vaccine’s availability becomes more widespread people will also be able to receive it at local pharmacies. The first doses Good Shepherd received are from Moderna, and he said it is their understanding that Good Shepherd will continue to receive the Moderna version, which is easier for rural hospitals to store and transport than Pfizer’s version, which needs to be kept in ultra-cold storage.